A Moment in Time reminded me of the sort of British expatriate women I used to meet in the south of France more than 50 years ago. They were very proud of their nationality, rather broke and talked down to most people. Colonel so-and-so and Lord so-and-so were distant relations or acquaintances.
It also reminded me of Separate Tables, Terence Rattigan’s brilliant play about snobbish souls living out their desperate lives in a grubby seaside hotel back in the 1950s. Except that poor old Veronica Lucan, now dead by her own hand, does not in any way write like Rattigan. Instead, she details her everyday disasters methodically, listing all the bad things that have happened to her. And I must admit there have been many.
She began life as the rather plain, middle-class Veronica Duncan, from a military background, with a beautiful younger sister, Christina, who married Bill Shand Kydd. He became a hero of mine for his death-defying horsemanship and his courage, following a riding accident, when he was left unable to move anything except his eyes.
Veronica is not nice about Christina and Bill, accusing them of alienating her three children, who chose to live with their aunt and uncle after their father, the infamous 7th Earl of Lucan, had murdered their nanny, Sandra Rivett, mistaking her for their mother. Needless to say, Veronica’s theory of blaming the Shand Kydds did not have many adherents, if any. And by all accounts, the children have grown up to be not only useful citizens but very engaging people, although I don’t know them.
Veronica begins by listing the aristocratic connections of the man she married — a strange way to start an autobiography — and continues tiresomely about dolls and teddies and their various names until we get to the meat of the story. Which turns out to be how horrid life with Lucky Lucan was, rather than the murder. She’s certainly right in judging that too much has been written about the accidental killing of that innocent nanny, whom the drunken Lucan mistakenly bludgeoned to death.
But of course there is also a detailed description of that fateful night of 7 November 1974; after which she continues her complaints about doctors, judges and relations — and the children who chose to make their lives away from her: ‘I think I have shown that my son decided he wanted to live as part of another family,’ she writes. Proper middle-class anal retention to the end.
The following is my own recollection of it all. Three days before the fateful night, I was packing to fly to Athens when Lucky dropped round (he had been given the name ‘Lucky’ by John Aspinall for being so unlucky in games of chance). I had known him since 1962, when we met at the Cowes powerboat race. I was crewing on Agnelli’s boat when a mustachioed caricature of an Englishman putt-putted past, greeted us with ‘See you in Tor…’ and proceeded to sink right in front of us. We pulled him on board and he introduced himself as John Bingham.
That evening, at a Max Aitken bash for drivers and crews, I began a long friendship with the future 7th Earl of Lucan. He became a close friend, in fact — so much so, that when I returned from Vietnam the second time, I brought back a jade ring for Veronica, a Greek custom. (One gives presents to the woman, not the man.) She used to stick her ringed finger in my face and go ‘Zzzzz’.
This cartoon Englishman would lament the loss of empire and predict that his country was going to hell in a handcart — but always with a wintry smile. When his marriage was going seriously wrong and he was trying to obtain custody of the children, Lucky told me how Veronica could sound perfectly normal in court, but that she was ‘obviously crazy’, and that he worried she might harm the children. It was clear to all that Veronica was indeed very strange. According to Lucky, she got worse after the birth of each child. In her book she lists the many sleeping pills, uppers and downers she was taking.
The night Lucky came to see me he asked for £7,000, and I gave him £3,000 — he needed cash — and guaranteed another £4,000 borrowed from my friend John Zographos. He hinted that he was going to kidnap the kids and take them to France.
Having discussed the tragedy many times with friends over the years, I surmise that Lucan must have got very drunk on the fateful night, because only he knew what he was about to do. He felt let down by the courts, and by the doctors who refused to commit Veronica.
Was she a danger to their children? I don’t think so. Was she a pain? Definitely. Was she jealous of her sister? Yes, 100 per cent. Was she a terrible mother? Again, yes. Had Lucky lied to her about being a professional gambler before she married him? No. Did the Aspinall group plot to save Lucan if he ever showed up? A thousand times no. In fact, Aspers and Jimmy Goldsmith rang me in Athens to tell me that if he were to appear, I should be sure to tell him to ‘fall on his sword’.
Veronica has a lot to say about the so-called ‘Aspinall set’. It is well known that she never got along with any of her husband’s friends, whom she bad-mouthed and complained about non-stop. They in turn found her mousy and unpleasant and only put up with her because they liked Lucky. But she does repeatedly insist here that she had a crush on Greville Howard, now Lord Howard. This must be news to Greville, who I think did a dry run with Lucky the night before the murder, also under the impression that Lucan planned to take his children to France.
I like the pictures that appear in this book; but remembering the many good times with Lucky, Aspinall, Jimmy Goldsmith and Greville Howard makes me very sad. And Veronica has proved that we were right to think her a nutcase. Soon after she finished writing A Moment in Time, she killed herself, believing she had Parkinson’s disease. She did not.